Power for the Parkinsons (2008).
Produced and Directed by Ephraim Smith
Distributed by ITN Distribution
Power for the Parkinsons, produced and directed by Ephraim Smith, is a rare breed of documentary: a documentary about the making of a documentary. Smith examines the making of Power and the Land, a 1940-government release that touted the benefits of bringing electricity to rural America. Produced for the Rural Electrification Administration (a New Deal agency created in 1935), Power and the Land was directed by Joris Ivens and conceived of by Pare Lorentz, more famously known for The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), films also produced for New Deal agencies. Power and the Land implicitly encouraged farmers to form electrification cooperatives that would be financed by loans from the Rural Electrification Administration, at a time when approximately seventy-five percent of farm households still lacked electricity.
The government film utilized a simple technique to extol the advantages of electricity. It profiled the Parkinsons, a dairy farming family of six from rural, southeastern Ohio, before and after the arrival of electricity. Family members (actors were not used) were filmed struggling with the routine tasks of housekeeping and agricultural production--work that became less burdensome after the adaptation of electricity. Ephraim Smith, an independent film producer and professor emeritus of history at California State University, Fresno, was attracted to the story of the Parkinsons and wanted to interview the family's descendants. The historian, however, was sidetracked by other projects and never had the opportunity to interview the Parkinsons' four offspring, as they all had died by the time Smith journeyed to Ohio. Despite this setback, Smith found other sources to interview for his documentary: film scholars, historians, and the family's grandchildren, relatives, friends, and neighbors. In Power for the Parkinsons, Smith combines these interviews with original film clips from Power and the Land to not only document the making of the New Deal-era film, but also to provide a snapshot of rural America before electrification.
Smith also takes a critical look at Power and the Land. As a government produced project, it should be analyzed as a propaganda film, albeit one with a compelling portrait of a rural household that exemplifies traditional American values of self-reliance, thrift, and the work ethic. The message was simple: While private power companies had "little enthusiasm" for bringing electricity to sparsely-populated rural America, the federal government, via the Rural Electrification Administration, would help farmers acquire electricity and thus transform their lives. The transformation depicted in Power and the Land, however, was misleading. The prohibitive startup costs for electrification are not mentioned, and the Parkinson farm and household, within a year of acquiring electricity, seemingly procured numerous electrical household appliances and modern farm equipment. For the average farmer during the Depression, attaining these trappings of modernization would not have been possible in a year--with or without electricity. Furthermore, when Power and the Land was filmed, the Parkinsons already had electricity, forcing the film crew to place furniture in front of the house's electrical outlets and switches. The crew also needed multiple shoots of the Parkinsons attending to their daily chores, a necessity that bemused the family, since it made little sense to repeatedly perform the same task once it was completed. Viewers, of course, did not have a sense that the scenes were partly staged, since the film implied that the camera was an unobtrusive observer of the household. Despite these occasional misrepresentations, the film historians interviewed for Power for the Parkinsons suggest that Power and the Land is "significant," because it captured a way of life (pre-electrification) that soon vanished from the United States.
Although Smith drew upon these historians to explicate the strengths and weaknesses of Power and the Land, a fuller explanation of historical context would have added more significance to Power for the Parkinsons. During the 1920s, agricultural prices and farmers' incomes plummeted. By the time the Depression set in, farmers--approximately one-third of the labor force--earned noticeably less than industrial workers. For President Roosevelt, raising agricultural prices (and the income of farmers) was essential for economic revitalization. With increased purchasing power, farmers could purchase more manufactured goods--many of which required electricity--and thus stimulate industrial recovery. Although the Agricultural Adjustment Act--paying farmers to reduce production in an attempt to raise prices--is the most well-known New Deal program that aided farmers, others addressed an array of agricultural concerns: soil erosion, flood control, the retirement of agriculturally unproductive land, forest restoration, the resettlement of farmers, and rural electrification. Thus, the Rural Electrification Administration, featured in Power and the Land, was part of an extensive effort to assist farmers and thereby rejuvenate the entire economy.
In addition to historical context, Power for the Parkinsons could have benefited from a fuller analysis of Power and the Land's portrayal of rural Americans during the Depression. The image of the family captured in the government film is easily recognizable for Americans, as it is related to an iconography associated with public memory of the Depression. The works are well-known: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, James Agee's Let Us Praise Famous Men, Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains, and Dorothea Lange's photography. In People's Lives, Public Images: The New Deal Documentary Aesthetic, American Studies scholar Astrid Boger notes that, "the particular iconicity of 'common lives' during the Depression years required that (for the most part rural) poverty be presented as dignified and that the poor possess an enduring strength in the face of economic hardship." The "enduring strength" of impoverished farmers was an important motif in New Deal films: the rural poor were hardworking, stoic Americans, worthy of government assistance, rather than slackers seeking to live off the "dole." The Parkinsons, though not as poor as the migrant workers and sharecroppers depicted in other images of the Depression, embody the "enduring strength" of rural Americans coping with the Depression.
Although Power for the Parkinsons does not include an extensive treatment of historical and thematic context, the film's excellent companion website (http://www.powerforparkinsons.com) provides historical interpretive essays, biographical sketches of Pare Lorentz and others associated with Power and the Land, and a discussion of rural electrification and women and technology. Several historical photographs and video interviews compliment the essays. Smith has also released a sequel, The Parkinsons: 1940-2005, which focuses on the family's offspring. These resources, along with Power for the Parkinsons, furnish insights into the making of a government documentary--one of many made during the New Deal--and provide a glimpse into pre-electrified, rural America.
University of Oklahoma